Friday, July 06, 2012

Frank Ocean, Anderson Cooper & Coming Out

Frank Ocean
A few days ago, the noted TV news personality and multimillionaire heir (to the Vanderbilt fortune) Anderson Cooper came out, after years of public speculation by his fans and years of being open among a private network of friends, associates and coworkers. To be truthful, Cooper, a very rich and well-placed white man, had very little to lose but his gossamer secret by declaring, in the offhanded way he did via a letter to his friend, conservative writer and pundit Andrew Sullivan, that he was "gay." He did not, as his peer Don Lemon did, come on the air and tell the world. He didn't even pick a gay pride celebration to make his statement. Yet he did it, and in so doing he was not going to lose his post as a CNN media figure; he was not going to lose his fans, most of whom not only couldn't have cared less that he was gay but had long wanted him to publicly come out; he was not going to lose his millions by being cut off by his mother, designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt; in fact, he wasn't going to lose much of anything except his key to a gilded yet fairly transparent closet. I say all of this not to attack Cooper, because I praise his public self-affirmation as a gay person, as queer man. I think it's wonderful, especially in light of the ongoing shift in public attitudes in the US and across the globe concerning gay rights and equality, and in light of the ongoing struggles, de facto and de jure, that queer people all over the US and the globe still face in terms of homophobic and heterosexist oppression. I applaud Anderson Cooper with the strongest and gayest claps possible. But he didn't have much to lose, and he didn't have a long walk to take out of a closet that barely existed, though he'd kept its door cracked and its walls intact.

In contrast, on Tuesday the 24-year-old singer and songwriter Frank Ocean, a member of the loose collective Odd Future, which has been rightly criticized for the violently anti-gay and misogynistic raps of some of its members, particularly Tyler the Creator (cf. "Yonkers"), bravely posted on his Tumblr page a two-paragraph letter--who says this ancient form no longer has relevance or power!?--letting the world know that his first love was a man he'd met when they were both 19 years old, and that that experience, however complicated and painful in some ways, however unreciprocal and difficult, had been transformative for him. Ocean did not use the word "gay" or any similar term, preferring instead simply to state for the record that the relationship had existed, what it meant and continues to mean for him, thanking hte unnamed beloved and letting him know that because of it he felt and "feel[s] like a free man." In other words, he acknowledged his queerness by acknowledging the truth of his life, and no labels were nor are necessary, though this did not prevent media outlets, Twitterers and Facebookers, and a good many of everybody else stating that he was "gay" or "bisexual" or trying to pin a label on him.

Ocean's letter, from his Tumblr page
Since then neither Ocean nor his publicists nor his bandmates have posted a retraction. The responses from Odd Future's Tyler the Creator and others across the music industry, especially in the genres that Ocean has worked most extensively, hiphop and R&B, have been almost uniformly positive and affirming. (Tyler tweeted on Wednesday, "My big brother finally f---ing did that. Proud of that n---a cause I know that sh-- is difficult or whatever. Anyway. I'm a toilet." Uh, okay.) Ocean's new and first full album, Channel Orange, is set to drop, and with media speculation percolating about the pronouns he'd chosen in three songs, so he very well could have come up with an excuse or denials and kept hidden the sort of relationship, however one-sided the letter suggests it was emotionally, that Terrance Dean chronicled in his 2008 book Hiding In Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry from Music to Hollywood (Simon & Schuster), and played the game as it usually is. Instead, by sharing this aspect of still brief life, he risked quite a bit, and still faces huge risks, but nevertheless took a step that unfortunately far too many figures much further along in their careers--Queen Latifah, for example--are still unwilling to take.

Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean (© Getty Images)
One may argue that given these risks and dangers are far greater for non-celebrities--Ocean after all appears on one of the best-known tracks on Jay Z's and Kanye West's recent album and is a member of a thriving musical group--and, in the absence of federal civil protections for queer people and the institution of overtly anti-gay laws in some states, as well as persistent homophobic and heterosexist attitudes, rhetoric and behavior by many major religious groups, anyone who is considering coming out has reason to be wary. This is true; one can ask too to what and to whom anyone is "coming out"; in the absence of affirmation and support, being openly queer--gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, unlabeled but self-posited as a non-heterosexual, as questioning, as emergent, as sexually and gender-fluid--can still be a life or death proposition, for someone of any age. For women, for people of color, for working-class and poor people, for a person with physical or mental challenges, for a religious minority or someone occupying all of these categories, the challenges and risks multiply. Thus the simplistic call for people to come out, born out of the earliest days of the post-Stonewall Rebellion movement towards gay rights and equality--Come Out! was in fact the name of one of the very first gay publications--must always be considered within the context of the specific people for whom it is cast, the society in which it might occur, the risks it entails. One can come out and go back in, or be out and still be continually be coming out. It isn't a one-time proposition, and it won't be for Cooper, if you can believe that, and certainly not for Frank Ocean.

Anderson Cooper
Whatever Frank Ocean decides to do, whatever he decides to call himself tomorrow or down the road, whatever he songs he writes and to whomever he address them, whatever the gender, he has had a major impact on the public discourse through his courageous step, and, I want to note this, those around him in the R&B and hiphop communities have also made a major impact by responding as they did. It is particularly invaluable for young black people, not just in the US but all over the globe, especially in places where internal and outside forces have ramped up homophobia, to see that a young black person, at the center of the forms of cultural production that animates local and global imaginaries, can speak about his life with truth and bravery and not be ashamed or duplicitous, that he can speak about falling in love with another person of the same sex, and talk about his hurt but also how much he gained from that experienced, and how it has brought him a freedom many people dream of, an emotional freedom, and a truthfulness, that so many queer people still struggle to attain.

I praise his courage and his candor, and urge others who can and are able to follow his lead to do so, just as I praise those like Cooper who have already got the world by their fingertips and decide to step out, be out, open up. I also urge all who can work to change the laws, here and abroad, that foment homophobia--which, as Barbara Smith, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Audre Lorde, and countless other visionaries have in their various ways noted lies at the core of nearly all anti-gay activity--and that foster oppression and inequality to do so, because by doing both, as he suggests, we all might be on the road to being "free."


  1. Coming out is no longer what it was, I think. People exist and go on with their lives in ways that dismiss the voyeuristic & exhibitionist nature of the closet. Public personas and private lives are not one in the same as some of us demand they be. Queen Latifah is a construct for the public and for a career. Dana is the woman I have seen at gay clubs dancing with women free and unconcerned with who sees. Anderson Cooper too owed us nothing, he never hid who he was. I actually thought everyone knew. Just because a public person does not confess their "sins" to us does not mean they are in the closet. Frank Ocean was in love with a man. So what? We all know that any Bi or gay or msm/mlm masculine man who is without a trace of femininity will be forgiven and given a hetero pass because it is assumed that he is the "man" in the dealings.